This is a multidisciplinary project that combines my passions for information visualization, design, and making Kant's philosophy accessible to a wider audience.
Reading Kant's philosophy for the first time (with its intricately interrelated technical terminology and intimidatingly long sentences) can easily give one the sense that one is lost in a vast philosophical edifice with many winding corridors. I find that a visual depiction of Kant's philosophy can provide a first step in understanding its intricately rich and systematic structure. And, indeed, over a decade of experience working on and teaching Kant has led me to see that a lot of his ideas can be helpfully explained through visualizations. This project gathers different diagrams and charts that help visualize aspects of Kant's philosophy.
My hope is that these visualizations serve to shine a light on some of the main guiding structures within Kant's philosophical edifice and, accordingly, to help readers orient themselves and navigate the winding (but rewarding) corridors of Kant's philosophy.
*Note: This is an evolving project that I pursue during my free time. Expect more visualizations to be added/visualizations to be refined and further annotated. I have coded and typeset all the diagrams myself using LaTeX. They are taken from .pdf files. If you would like copies of any of these diagrams/charts without the watermarks, please email me.
If you would like, you can support this ongoing visualization project by buying me a coffee at the bottom of this page.
Unlocking a Deeper Understanding of Kant
Kant's critical philosophy is notoriously obscure and inaccessible, but I teach its ideas in a way that helps non-specialists visualize and thereby grasp the philosophical insights behind the intimidating terminology.
I owe my general approach to interpreting Kant to my dissertation advisor, Houston Smit, who adopts what he calls a conditional-constitutive reading of Kant's critical philosophy. This revolutionary approach to reading Kant unlocks an understanding of what is genuinely distinctive and long-lasting about Kant's critical philosophical project. According to this approach, Kant’s philosophy focuses on articulating the conditions of the possibility of things that we take for granted in everyday life but that are threatened by empiricist skeptical arguments.
More specifically, if one is attracted to an empiricist approach to philosophy like David Hume’s, which holds that philosophy should be built on knowledge of sense experience, then one might find appealing the thought that we can only legitimately think of that which we have previously sensed. This, in turn, might lead one to worry that causation, free action, morality, and even the self are mere illusions. After all, we never really have sensory experience of causal necessitation, of moral goodness, or a persisting self. All we really have sensory experience of is successions of appearances that are generally regular but admit exceptions. As Hume puts it, "All events seem entirely loose and separate...They seem conjoined but never connected." Such an empirical skeptical approach thus leads one to doubt key aspects of what we presuppose as part of ordinary experience. Indeed, it leads one to see reality as a mere succession of appearances with no persisting and interacting objects or persons underlying this succession.
Kant is famously awakened from his "dogmatic slumber" by the force of Humean arguments like this, and his critical philosophy is meant to articulate a response and alternative to this empiricist skeptical picture.
According to a conditional-constitutive reading, Kant replies to this skeptical challenge by arguing not that experience, the self, or morality, are actual. Rather, his strategy is to argue that as subjects of thinking, experience, and action, our mental capacities (cognitive and agential) must take a certain form if these phenomena that we take for granted (and that skeptical arguments undermine) are to be possible. He thereby argues that our capacities as subjects serve as conditions that constitute the possibility of these phenomena.
Kant thus argues that, if experience of an objective reality of interacting objects is to be possible, then we must have:
a receptive spatiotemporal Sensibility that allows us to coordinate sensory data into perceptual representations (what Kant calls "intuitions") that constitute a global model of our world
a spontaneous conceptual Understanding that allows us to think of objects by means of intellectual/conceptual representations (concepts)
The combined exercise of Sensibility and Understanding allows us to jointly sense and think objects, thereby successfully cognitively grasping them through the combination of perceptual and conceptual representations, i.e., experiencing them. In this way, Sensibility and Understanding constitute conditions of the possibility of experience. Moreover, Kant argues that these are conditions that must also hold if we are to be embodied psychological persons (sensible beings to whom acts of thinking are imputable)
Thus, for Kant, the constitution of our cognitive capacities makes our experience of an objective reality and law-governed nature possible. As Kant puts it, "Thus, we ourselves bring into appearances the order and regularity in them that we call nature, and moreover we would not be able to find it therein, had not we or the nature of our mind originally put it there."
In my work, I extend this conditional-constitutive interpretive approach to Kant's moral philosophy and thus argue that Kant gives parallel arguments for the conditions of the possibility of objective reality and objective morality.
He argues that if objective (categorical) morality is to be possible, then we must have:
a receptive capacity for desire that gives us the power to be motivated by sensible desires for objects we like/dislike
a spontaneous pure practical Reason that gives us the power to act freely according to moral principles/for moral reasons, independently of what our contingent desires are like.
The exercise of pure practical reason to act for moral reasons makes it possible to comply with categorical requirements of morality that apply to all rational agents, regardless of their contingent desires. Once again, Kant argues that these are conditions must also hold if we are to be genuine moral persons (sensible beings to whom acts in the world are imputable).
Importantly, according to a conditional-constitutive interpretation, Kant is not using philosophical arguments to demonstrate the truth of claims about the nature of things in themselves and thereby refute skeptical arguments that threaten the self, objective reality, and objective morality. Indeed, Kant famously argues that pure reason cannot demonstrate theoretical conclusions about things in themselves, beyond the bounds of sensory experience. Rather, Kant's argumentative approach is more subtle and interesting. First, he notes that, as part of ordinary thinking, experience, and moral practice, we presuppose that we do exist as thinking selves, that we experience an objective reality, and that there is objective morality. Then he gives arguments that defend and thereby legitimize these presuppositions by essentially providing an account of how these phenomena threatened by skeptical argument could be possible.
In other words, empiricist skeptical arguments challenge the very possibility of things like the self and objective reality because, on an empiricist view of the mind, there seems to be nothing that could correspond to these concepts. Kant's critical philosophy articulates an alternative coherent and cohesive account of the mind to the empiricist one, an alternative that articulates how these concepts could correspond to something real, thereby answering this challenge. This account appeals fundamentally to the "a priori" structure of our mental capacities, the structure that they must have in order to ground the possibility of norm-governed thinking, experience of objective reality and law-governed nature, and objective morality. Kant argues that this a priori structure must be an organic, architectonic structure that allows our capacities as subjects to jointly ground the possibility of these everyday phenomena through their interrelated operations.
In giving his view of this architectonic structure, Kant is making claims about how subjects of experience, thinking, and morality must be constituted as things in themselves, if thinking, experience, and morality are to be possible. Kant's critical philosophy does not attempt to demonstrate that things in themselves are, in fact, constituted this way. But, this philosophy does defend and thereby vindicate the presuppositions that the formal "supersensible" conditions of the possibility of these phenomena hold, presuppositions that Kant argues all human subjects make as part of ordinary life and that are about our constitution as things in themselves. These formal conditions concern, roughly, the form that our activities as subjects that are things in themselves must take to make thinking, experience, and morality possible. Besides these, there are material conditions of the possibility of these ordinarily presupposed phenomena, which concern, roughly, the contribution that absolutely subject- or mind-independent reality must make in order to make these phenomena possible. On a conditional constitutive reading of the kind I argue for, Kant does not offer any arguments concerning the material conditions of the possibility of experience, as these lie beyond the philosophical reach of human reason.
The organic, architectonic structure of our cognitive capacities is fundamental for Kant's philosophical system, making possible Kant's "twofold metaphysics" of nature and morals, as well as the unification of these two domains. It is this architectonic structure and the symmetric pictures of nature and morality that I aim to make visible to a wide audience, so as to help them grasp what is interesting and exciting about Kant's philosophy. The rich details of these architectonic cognitive structures and the symmetric pictures of nature and morality they make possible constitute the focus of my research on Kant, which is inspired by and builds on the work of other Kant scholars including Houston Smit, Mark Timmons, Till Hoeppner, Timothy Rosenkoetter, Dieter Henrich, Béatrice Longuenesse, Michael Wolff, Michael Friedman, and Ralf Bader.
The architectonic structure of our capacities is represented graphically by Kant himself in the form of certain tables that represent the fundamental resources of our spontaneous capacity of cognition. These include the logical functions of the understanding, the logical forms of judgment, the categories of nature, and the categories of freedom. In my work, I argue for an interpretation according to which the logical functions are the fundamental structures of the Understanding. When we apply these functions to order different kinds of representations: concepts, intuitions, and desires, they yield (respectively), the logical forms of judgment, the categories of nature, and the categories of freedom. Each of these derivative architectonic structures, in turn, makes possible norm-governed thinking, experience of a law-governed nature, and our practice of moral evaluation. When we critically investigate what makes these possible and systematize these resources, we engage in a critical approach to metaphysics that is based on the structure of our cognitive capacities, and which yields Kant's twofold metaphysics of nature and morals:
In my dissertation, I argue that the logical functions of the understanding are themselves deeply related to yet another architectonic structure in Kant's philosophy: the concepts of reflection. More specifically, I argue that the logical functions of the understanding order representations by treating them according to these central concepts.
Below are annotated versions of these architectonic tables to give a sense of what they look like and how they are systematically interrelated:
Below is an image that connects and color codes the three annotated tables stemming directly from the logical functions (with examples) for ease of comparison.
Note that each of these tables features a progression from a heading of Quantity to Quality to Relation to Modality. The basic idea behind this progression is roughly that:
Quantity: determines a domain of representations for the activities of our spontaneous cognition (i.e., the quantity of representations to then give a quality, and then relate to each other and to our spontaneous capacity for cognition)
Quality: determines qualities of quantitatively determined representations
Relation: determines relations between quantitatively and qualitatively determined representations
Modality: determines relations between our spontaneous capacity for cognition in general and quantitatively, qualitatively, and relationally determined representations.
In this way, the headings of each table represent dimensions of the fundamental activities of our cognition, which interrelate in systematic ways as part of an organic whole of cognition. You can find visualizations of the relationships between the individual elements in Kant's architectonic tables in the Relations between Kant's Tables section.
Together, Kant's architectonic system has the resources to perform a philosophical synthesis in the tradition of the ancient Greeks, who saw philosophy as an organic whole of:
logic (dealing with correct thinking/reasoning and how to think),
physics (dealing with nature and what is), and
ethics (dealing with morality, how to live, and what ought to be).
Kant's critical philosophical system is an organic, architectonic whole of transcendental logic/philosophy/general metaphysics, critical physics/metaphysics of nature, and critical ethics/metaphysics of morals. Moreover, this philosophical system synthesizes the resources from traditional Aristotelian scholastic philosophy together with early modern European rationalist and empiricist/sentimentalist insights in theoretical, natural, and moral/political philosophy. This includes notably providing philosophical foundations to:
Newtonian physics/natural philosophy (which centers mathematically formulable and experimentally validated laws of nature) and
Rousseauean moral/political philosophy (which centers human autonomy in morality/politics).
Part of these foundations consists of providing Newtonian physics with foundations that do not require Newton's epistemically problematic concepts of Absolute Space and Time, which are inherently tied to a certain concept of God, and articulating how autonomous rational principles must generate motivating moral sentiments, if objective morality is to be possible.
Why Kant Now?
In a contemporary context, one might rightly wonder, what is the use of investing so much time and energy to understand the ideas of an old European white man? Especially one who is a canonical figure in the history of philosophy and who has some ignorant and bigoted things to say about certain marginalized groups in some of his writings.
It is undeniable that Kant himself had certain oppressive attitudes (and a generally pessimistic view of many aspects of humanity), but we can liberate the systematic spirit of Kant’s philosophy from Kant’s own problematic views/attitudes.
The reality is that (as I hope these visualizations collectively show) Kant’s philosophy serves as an especially vivid, expansive, and fruitful model of transdisciplinary systematic philosophizing, one that synthesizes revolutionary insights from different disciplines into a holistic philosophical system, and one that we can refine and augment with crucial insights that were not available to Kant.
I would agree with critics of Kant that these insights (which are missing from Kant's philosophy) are indispensable in a contemporary context and come from many diverse disciplines, including (but not limited to) modern abstract mathematics (based on ways of thinking about logic and language not available to Kant), field theoretic physics, evolutionary theory, dynamical systems theory, complexity science, cybernetics, ecological economics, world-ecology, intersectional transnational feminism, Critical Race Theory, disability studies, queer theory, and liberation theology. And indeed, I actively integrate these insights into my own systematic transdisciplinary philosophizing. However, I argue that the transdisciplinary integration our contemporary context demands needs to be undertaken in a similarly holistic, systematic way that allows us to connect and make the most out of the many revolutionary insights from different disciplines.
While in a contemporary context, Kant’s philosophy may certainly have its limitations, this philosophy remains a fruitful, sophisticated, and under-appreciated model of systematic transdisciplinary philosophy, one that incorporates many of the revolutionary insights (from different thinkers and disciplines) available to Kant given his time and place, and one that can guide and inspire us to do the same with the revolutionary insights and knowledge available to us in ours.
Links to Other Visualizations
Besides the diagrams and tables of structures in Kant's critical philosophy on this page, I also create diagrams of the relationships between different capacities of cognition, of the internal structure of Kant's works, and of the relations between different parts of Kant's philosophy. You can take a look at these here: